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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: JUST LIKE JACKIE by Lindsey Stoddard

Just LIke JackieOur Heavy Medal long list contains quite a few heavy hitters. We have some beautifully written fantasy epics, some brilliantly designed biographies, some timely themed realistic fiction novels, and one quiet little book by the most decorated Newbery author of our generation. How can JUST LIKE JACKIE, a coming-of-age story about a scrappy young girl determined to keep her family together, written by debut author Lindsey Stoddard, stand out among these powerhouses?

Let’s start with JUST LIKE JACKIE’s biggest strength, Robbie’s voice. Robbie is tough and fierce. She’s that kid in class that drives you crazy, but you can’t help but love her because she’s so smart and witty at the same time. Plus she’s endearing. She’s become her caretaker’s caretaker much sooner than she should have and this has made her defensive and guarded for fear of being found out and taken away from him.

I don’t know what my core is made of except maybe Grandpa’s one-quarter, but it’s not all syrupy sweet, that’s for sure. It’s not like the center of a perfect sugar maple. It’s tight like a knotted piece of firewood, gnarled and hard to chop through.

Getting readers to care about a stubborn character is no small feat but Stoddard accomplishes this with figurative language that feels effortlessly written and reads true to Robbie’s character. It’s writerly for sure, but doesn’t feel writerly coming from Robbie. It’s maple trees and car repairs and baseball. When she’s watching Alex, a bully, break down in front of her:

I want to laugh and point and say Who’s tough now? but all I can do is stare because it’s like watching a high-class, fully loaded BMW break down literally right in front of you. Lost brakes, locked steering wheel, wild swerving, and flat tires on wobbly rims. It’s pathetic.

When Robbie struggles with deciding whether or not to come clean about her troubles taking care of her grandpa or not:

I want to tell Harold about how Grandpa wandered away Friday night and almost got lost up in the woods. And how I think Grandpa’s check engine light is on and I don’t know how to figure out what’s wrong. But I hope it’s something as easy as a missing gas cap. And that we can get a new one, on the house, and drive off all fixed.

 When she and Alex share a moment near the end of the novel:

Alex nods like he gets it, and I think he does. And I think I do too. Sometimes people feel so bad they want to make others feel worse. And sometimes people can be so angry at something inside that it spurts out everywhere, like a high-pressure radiator leak.

I think this style of narrative is very fitting for child readers and distinguished in the sense that it’s not easy to pull off. I think it is more sensible in its approach for a child audience than something like HEY, KIDDO by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, which is also on our long list and which is also about a child being raised by grandparents.

There are strengths to this beside lovable Robbie’s voice however. Its Vermont setting is fully realized with details like sap harvesting from maple trees and the inclusive school setting. Its secondary characters, from Robinson’s grandfather, to Harold and Paul, to the bully Alex, to all the school professionals that reach out to support Robbie, all have purpose and appropriate depth for a book of this nature. Its message of family and acceptance is well earned too.

Readers of Heavy Medal this season will know that I made no secret about this title being at the top of my ballot. I believe it’s a tightly constructed book with a lot of heart and a great voice and it compares nicely to some of the other well distinguished works published this year.

Introduction by Mr. H

We now invite further comments from Heavy Medal Committee members and from all other readers. We will start with positive comments, as usual.  We’ll open it up to negative comment as well at 12:00 noon Eastern (3:00 Pacific).  This is a change in procedure:  previously Roxanne or I would announce that broader discussion is fine with a post in the comments; from now on, consider 12:00 noon Eastern the standard time for open discussion.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. I was happy to have read this book. What I truly appreciated may have nothing to do with criteria, perhaps it applies to accuracy. It showed competent professionals doing their jobs well. Up against FRONT DESK, that showed police officers committing serious malpractice unchecked, it was heartening to see educators and public health officials doing what their training mandates, which is to find the least restrictive alliterative. I appreciated that the author did her research on best practice. Not that it should be expected that every fictional story should have competent professionals, every book needs tension.

    • Yes! I loved HARBOR ME with its similar theme of having kids in a small group but it was weird to me that the kids were unsupervised in that book. This was more realistic to what I see and how well these group sessions can work.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      Definitely. It’s nice to see adults acting the way adults would normally act but still from a child’s perspective. It’s like when you watch Max and Ruby and wonder where there parents are. But I do think this author has the advantage of having been a middle school teacher so I imagine the protocols and general workings of a school come pretty naturally to her.

  2. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    Creating troubled characters that feel authentic but are still likable is a challenge, and I think this book pulls it off well. Jackie’s anger issues were well portrayed, and the other troubled students also felt well-rounded and authentic.

  3. Samuel Leopold says:

    So…. if there is one thing I have learned this year it is that, when participating in a marvelous journey of books such as we are on now, re-reading and re-evaluating are vital to the process. I liked this book upon my first read. I loved it after my second. Mr. H. has nailed it in his elaboration of Robbie’s voice. Robbie’s voice is authentic and the young readers I know who have read this story enjoy it because Robbie seems like a real kid with real problems and issues many of them understand. I found myself seeing glimpses and shadows of Robbie’s personality in the eyes and hearts of my young scholars. The author has taken her pen and painted a beautiful picture that readers of all ages can embrace and enjoy. This strong voice and powerful character development is what catapults this title onto my final list of books I will be voting for.

  4. This book wasn’t on my radar at all, and like DaNae, I’m glad I read it. And I agree here with Jordan: Robbie is exceptionally characterized, and her tough girl attitude fondly reminded me of Gilly Hopkins. Few authors can nail the scrappy but likable “tomboy”, but Stoddard does so with ease. Robbie’s grease monkey spirit feels totally authentic, and I love how seamlessly inclusive Stoddard’s characters are. More gay mechanics, please!

    Similarly, Robbie’s anguish felt totally believable, and she acted very much as a child throughout the book: from thinking that running away was a good solution to caring for her grandfather even though she knew the odds were stacked against her. I especially liked her growth during group therapy – her realization that those who she thought had power actually did not. It was a nice parallel to her own suffering.

  5. I appreciate how believable all of Robbie’s conflicts felt in this book. There was never tension for tension’s sake, but real life reactions that a child would find most logical.

  6. Jessica Lee says:

    I agree that Robbie was a well-crafted character with an appealing voice. I found this book very solidly written and one I enjoyed and would recommend. But I struggle with describing this book as distinguished. I don’t see what sets JUST LIKE JACKIE apart from most MG novels. This book reasonates strongly with some people, children and adults. I was wondering if this was just a personal bias against MG realistic fiction. But a title that we will discuss later convinced me that I can overcome my bias. Please, sell me on what makes this book distinguished beyond a likeable character. Note: I had a similar reaction to FRONT DESK.

    • Jessica, I have the same feelings. While I’m happy to have read this book and find readers for it. I don’t think it rises to most distinguished. Perhaps because it never surprised me. I was always conscience of the author’s set up: Grandpa takes off his gloves = he is going to burn his hands, Harold and his husband are getting ready to become parents = a safety net for Robbie. I don’t know that this is a failing, but in a year of spectacular books this just doesn’t rise to most distinguished.

      (Sorry, Jordan)

      • I agree that the Harold becoming a parent was pretty heavy-handed. Although I suppose part of the point is that Jackie is surrounded by people who want to help her, but she can’t see that even though we can.

    • I Agree Heartily with you both, Jessica and DaNae!

      • Many things struck me as unlikely– Robbie doesn’t know Anything about her mom? Not even her name? Alex becomes not a jerk that quickly?
        In a tiny town in Vermont where everyone knows each other’s business a teacher assigns a family tree assignment to a kid with a dead mom and doesn’t talk to her or her Grandpa about it beforehand?
        Certain story beats felt contrived and there were many points where I had trouble suspending my disbelief.

      • 1. Robbie’s grandfather is the only one who would know her name and he’s A) suffering from Alzheimer’s and B) grief stricken from his daughter’s depth to talk about it. The way facing this grief seemed to exasperate his Alzheimer’s actually felt very genuine to me.

        2. I wouldn’t necessarily say Alex wasn’t a jerk at the end. In fact, Robbie could still kind of be considered a jerk… the point is that she understands where he’s coming from.

        3. About the family tree project, this part too actually bugged me because the ignorance of the teacher was so sharply contrasted by all the other smart, realistic professionals helping Robbie.

    • I also agree. It’s a great book, but it lacks the distinguished quality required. Robbie is a realistic and likeable character, but she’s not unique.

      • I agree, Mr. H. that the Alzheimers is portrayed well. But really, Robbie’s whole life he’s never told her anything at all about her mother? He hasn’t been suffering from severe Alzheimers her whole life…

        And yes, I found some of the adults in Robbie’s life to be realistically portrayed. Ms. Meg was great.

  7. I thought Robbie was a wonderful protagonist and I loved the group therapy scenes. This wasn’t one of my top favorites but I thought it was a very strong title. I thought that one of its strengths that hasn’t been mentioned was how effortlessly inclusive it was.

    • I’m curious as to what African American readers make of Robbie and her Grandpa. This isn’t an ‘own voices’ book… And Vermont has a Very small African American population. Do the characters and situations ring true?

  8. Cherylynn5691 says:

    As someone with a relative who had dementia. I liked how close the book followed what I remember experiencing with my aunt. I think sometimes we do not give enough credit to a book that is not flashy. Myself included. This book told a gentle story well. Yes there were no surprises, but did there need to be?

    • Cherylynn, thanks for sharing your experience and that you found the dementia experience to ring true. I wasn’t hoping for surprises, necessarily. Sometimes predictable elements in a story can be a joy (the warm feeling of knowing that Louisiana was going to wind up with the Burke Allens) and some can be less effective and sometimes irritating.
      The scene in the school office where the child welfare worker says “Let’s meet later when you are feeling better” was the ultimate ‘Checkov’s gun’ that Coutrney mentions. I felt annoyed because I knew Robbie was going to run away with her grandpa to the hiking shelter (a horrible idea that felt incongruous for a character as clever as Robbie) and why would adults send a kid home with an adult who is a danger to her? (The scenes where the Grandpa were driving were hair-raising!)

  9. Courtney Hague says:

    I had to really think about this to get my thoughts in order before I commented. I did enjoy this book and I definitely think that I will find the perfect reader for it at my library. But, I agree with Jessica and DaNae that I don’t think of this book as most distinguished. It started just as a feeling as I was reading the book but now I think I’ve put my thoughts together.

    This book feels like it was trying too hard, like it had something to teach me and really wanted to hammer it home. You know the idea of “Chekhov’s gun”? Where if you see a pistol in the first act it should go off in the second? This book didn’t want casual mentions of anything that might be significant later on. You have the multiple mentions of the hikers’ shelter on the Appalachian Trail which clearly leads to Robbie trying to run away there with her grandfather and then the multiple mentions of Harold’s “practice dad” speeches which leads to him being like her dad-in-waiting. I think we have other books on our list that have done this sort of foreshadowing more effectively or just more subtly.

    Also, as much as I liked Robbie, I just didn’t buy her as a real child. I mean, her reactions were realistic and her reasonings, but I thought the baseball stats coupled with the whiz-kid mechanic seemed like a little much. Maybe if both had been presented more subtly I could have believed it, but I think she would have been a more well-rounded character if she had been really into one or the other of those things. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just haven’t met a child like Robbie. Anyone want to convince me?

    • I agree with your foreshadowing observation, Courtney. It did seem like it was done with a heavy hand, and the Chekhov parallel is pitch perfect. I think Stoddard is a good writer, but this, like many first-time novels, fell into a few rookie potholes. (And if/when I write my first book, I’m sure I’ll make precisely the same errors.)

      Off the top of my head, I can think of a few children I taught in the past who were laser-focused or obsessed with certain things – whether it was something like Backstreet Boys or cars or Pokemon. I don’t think Robbie’s characterization was too different from any of those students, but I can see that the combination of those two obsessions, baseball and car work, might be a bit much. As someone pointed out earlier in HM discussion – are kids *really* that obsessed with baseball anymore? I honestly can’t think of a single kid in 20 years of education that rattled off baseball stats like that. Football and basketball, yes. Baseball – no.

      • I’m the anti-baseball person! Well, I personally like baseball. And I read tons of books with baseball as a theme when I was a kid, but I am not sure why it persists as a theme in children’s literature these days – I wish that would change to soccer or basketball. I struggled with it in this book – I would have loved for Robbie to be into the NBA and named after a famous NBA player (like, say, Zelmo Beaty).

      • I will say this about baseball… I generally find in my area at least, that it is the one sport that parents are familiar with. Many have played. So they cling to it. Of all the sports that parents push onto their children, I think baseball still probably reigns supreme. At least at a young age. If anything, they sign them up to get that all important t-ball picture! Which is why some may feel it’s prevalent in children’s literature. I agree that kids grow up and the number of kids that actually stick with baseball is shrinking.

        I had a student just two years ago, who’s father gifted him with all his old albums of baseball cards and this boy and a few of his friends became obsessed with baseball cards and memorizing stats on the back of them. I actually used batting averages to reinforce some decimal work in math that year.

      • Genevieve says:

        My kid absolutely rattled off baseball stats like that in elementary school and middle school. In high school he and an similarly stats-focused friend started a fantasy baseball league that had, I think, twelve participants every year, and they’re still doing it now that they’re in college.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      So I definitely believe the baseball stats part. I am married to a man who was definitely that kid when he was younger and I have met children who can rattled off baseball stats, football stats, basketball stats, etc. I guess I just had trouble believing the characterization of a child who would be so into BOTH baseball AND car mechanics. It just seemed like a lot for one kid to be into which made her feel less real to me.

      • That didn’t ring false to me at all – my kid was simultaneously very into baseball and musicals, and his best friend was very into baseball, musicals, and movie trivia.

  10. About baseball though…

    When we’re talking about the age range of Newbery contenders I feel as if I’m always told that as long as a book is distinguished for one specific age (lets say 14-year-olds) then it is eligible and should be a contender. Shouldn’t the same hold true with topics and subject matter? What I mean is just because some of us as readers don’t identify with baseball, some readers out there do.

    I guess I just don’t really see where the baseball comments apply to a Newbery conversation…

  11. As far as the “kids today don’t like baseball” question, I think this is highly idiosyncratic based on the family/local region. I know a couple of kids that are really into baseball – almost always it’s a generational thing. Their parents and grandparents are passing down a tradition of rooting for a particular team and watching every game. So it didn’t seem unusual that Jackie, being raised by a baseball loving grandparent, also loves baseball, even if it’s not as in tune with a larger sports culture zeitgeist. If anything it helps to cement her outsider status that she is obsessed with something that other people know about but don’t care about or invest in the way that she does.

    • Yes, that’s totally fair. It’s like how I played gin rummy with my grandpa every afternoon, which was not what your average 9-year-old was doing. And I agree with Mr. H above that it’s a sport that parents know (the way I think that plays out in children’s literature is that in general it’s a sport adults know more than kids, so it gets written about).

      I don’t think that the baseball issue is a make-or-break for this book – I really only brought it up because I have been surprised at how little the baseball books circulate compared to how many are still published (I think circulation has dropped off a lot even in the past five years). I would think it’s pertinent to the discussion because if Robbie’s interest in baseball and experiences with baseball are an important plot point of the book, the way that is developed has got to be especially distinguished to feel fresh and to stand out.

      (Publishers, if you are reading: MORE SOCCER AND BASKETBALL PLEASE.)

      • “I would think it’s pertinent to the discussion because if Robbie’s interest in baseball and experiences with baseball are an important plot point of the book, the way that is developed has got to be especially distinguished to feel fresh and to stand out.”

        This makes sense. I’ve heard others say that the title and idea of Robbie following in the footsteps of her grandpa’s idol Jackie Robinson was also something that wasn’t as developed as they thought it would be. I’m not sure this makes the book less distinguished to me, but I can see where you are coming from.

      • That’s true. If you come in really wanting a baseball book, you’re probably going to be kind of disappointed.

  12. Alright, one final play…

    I guess in considering this book, I would just ask readers and committee members to consider this language in the Newbery criteria:

    “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”

    When people are questioning how “distinguished” this work is, I would ask you to consider what it’s trying to accomplish. JUST LIKE JACKIE is a character-driven, realistic fiction story. It’s trying to accomplish different things than LITTLE CHARLIE, SWEEP, BOOK OF BOY, and BRANGWAIN. I would argue that in a character-driven work of fiction, the criteria that should be most pertinent are “delineation of character” and “development of a plot.” Because the plot is what gets the character from Point A to Point B. I think “appropriateness of style” and “interpretation of theme or concept” should be high as well… but the big rocks are character and plot.

    I think Robbie is realistic and memorable and has one of the best voices of the year. I think the growth she experiences over the course of the book is well delineated. Examples have been given and many of you (even those who wouldn’t vote for this) have even agreed.

    The hang up is that we have a tendency to sometimes overlook the quieter books because others “look” so much bigger, louder, and more distinguished. But I would argue that as long as Robbie distinguishes herself from the other cast of realistic fiction characters in children’s literature this year, that’s really all she needed to do to be considered a “distinguished” work.

    • samuel leopold says:

      I agree that Robbie’s voice is as strong, memorable and unique as any character in any of the other books we are discussing.

      And, it is true…..sometimes the quietest books “make the most noise on Awards day.”

  13. Great write-up, Jordan! I agree with all of your points. I think it’s well-written and the characters are well-developed. I thought the imagery based on Jackie’s interests was a good way to get that into a first person kid POV in a natural way.

    I liked that it didn’t feel like an “issue” book because everything’s handled in an organic and story-based way. I agree with everyone that one of its strengths is that it’s really good at modeling. She’s dealing with a lot and wants to deal with it on her own, but she’s surrounded by adults who care about her and want to help—and who actually do help. If I were a kid, I think I’d feel a lot better about asking my guidance counselor for help after reading this book. That’s not really a literary point, but it’s still nice.

    I also liked learning about the various things Robbie knew how to do. I now feel like I know how to change the oil on a car and harvest sap for maple syrup. I find that very satisfying in books, and particularly enjoyed that as a kid. That’s one of the things I loved the most about The Boxcar Children—they got to be competent at practical things I’d never be allowed to do.

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